Purchasing, supply and retail

Purchasing and supply

This sector includes the purchasing (or procurement) and sale/supply of goods and services to organisations and business customers.

All kinds of organisations ‘purchase’ products and services in order to carry out their business. They purchase these from ‘suppliers’. Suppliers may be manufacturers of products, or providers of specialist services, or they may be wholesalers, i.e. firms which provide goods which have been produced by a separate manufacturer.

Purchasing is carried out by specialist staff and is also known as procurement or buying.
Meanwhile suppliers employ staff to process and conduct the sale of products and services to their customers. For more on the types of jobs available, see ‘Types of graduate roles’ below.

Employers in purchasing and supply exist across the whole range of industry sectors and may be large national or multinational companies, small to medium-sized enterprises, public sector organisations, or charities. Purchase and supply transactions can take place solely within the domestic market or, in many cases, involve the import and export of goods and services.

The globalisation and increasing complexity of the supply chain is a key issue for the sector. Global supply chains lead to greater risk from fraud and more complicated regulations around compliance and standards in different markets. There is also the potential for increased risk of friction between buyers and suppliers when things go wrong, with a need for effective digital solutions to minimise problems and ensure timely dispatch and delivery of goods and services. Purchasing staff and suppliers also need to address aspects of sustainability and corporate social responsibility (e.g. ‘fair trade’) when sourcing and negotiating the cost of products and services. Such issues can increasingly affect the brand reputation of organisations.

Traditional paper systems have been largely replaced, of course, by Information Technology and cloud-based platforms are helping to make processes ever more efficient. Some effects of the above factors are an increased demand for graduates with IT skills, increasing sales-related opportunities in digital marketing, and the need for salesforce staff to have relationship-building skills to build and maintain customer satisfaction.

Types of graduate roles

Staff working in Purchasing are responsible for buying equipment, goods and services on behalf of their organisation. For example, this could be the purchase of:

  • components that go into a company’s products
  • finished products for sale to customers
  • goods and equipment to be used by an organisation
  • commercial services such as advertising, technology support or premises maintenance
Purchasing staff seek to purchase goods or services in a cost-effective way to help their employer save money. This means researching and working with data to identify factors like levels of demands, prices, and potential suppliers, and to process payments. They also work closely with suppliers to ensure timely deliveries and good relations, and manage the risks associated with working with different suppliers and their reliability.

Related job titles are Buyer, Purchasing Manager/Assistant or Procurement manager.

Suppliers employ sales people, administrators such as logistics/supply chain managers, and customer service and IT support staff. In addition, suppliers of physical products employ staff in their stores or warehouses, which can include managers and information technology professionals.

Sales personnel sell a company's products or services to individuals, businesses and government departments. Sales to individuals are called B2C ‘Business to Customer’, while sales to organisations are known as B2B ‘Business to Business’. Sales may be domestic (within the UK) or international. As well as identifying and contacting potential clients to generate new business, sales personnel work with their existing customers to maintain a good commercial relationship and ensure customer satisfaction. They negotiate the terms of agreements and gather customer information, anticipate customers’ needs and liaise with departments in their own organisation or other suppliers to ensure customer requirements are met.

Related job titles include Sales Executive, Sales Representative or Business Development Manager, as well as titles which reflect the specific type of product e.g. Medical Sales Representative.

Entry points

It is possible to enter graduate positions in purchasing and supply directly after completing a degree. As with most careers, having relevant work experience e.g. via a placement will increase your chances, although related part-time/vacation jobs in a customer-service environment could also be helpful, especially for sales or supply roles.

Large organisations will have specialist sales and purchasing/buying departments or similar, and therefore may recruit graduates and placement students directly into these departments. Alternatively, their graduate and placement programmes may include a period spent in such departments as part of a number of rotations within the business.

It is important to think about the industries that match your career interests. For example, this may be retail buying, information technology, financial services, manufacturing and engineering, fast moving consumer goods (e.g. food, toiletries, household products), science and pharmaceuticals, or medical sales, etc.

Skills and experience required

Purchasers/buyers need excellent commercial awareness to understand business needs, negotiate prices and supply timelines, and develop good relationships with producers and their agents. Strong communication skills, including listening and tact are essential, while working with and analysing financial data requires good numerical ability. Purchasing managers need leadership skills, including the ability to organise and motivate others.

Large organisations with graduate opportunities in purchasing may not stipulate a particular degree subject, but some may prefer a business-related discipline. Companies in engineering and technical sectors, including construction, may well prefer a relevant degree subject. Having a postgraduate qualification accredited by the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply could increase your prospects, e.g. for employers which do prefer a relevant subject.

Useful experience for purchase and supply roles includes work placements and internships or relevant part-time and vacation work. You can also develop your commercial awareness through experience working with budgets, e.g. on student committees or voluntary organisations.

Sales staff need confidence and strong communication skills including diplomacy, listening, relationship-building, and networking. A positive and persuasive manner is important, as is a resilient nature. Sales staff need to be able to work both alone and in teams, and a driving licence is usually required. It is possible to enter sales with any degree subject, as the right personality traits and commercial acumen are the essential qualities, although some employers may favour business related degrees.

Trainee management roles in sales and supply require the ability to lead and direct others, as well as strong organisational skills.

Customer service experience of any kind is likely to be considered useful for a future career in sales, as may ‘student ambassador’ and other promotional roles, as these can all demonstrate an outgoing and positive nature.

Job search strategies

Graduate jobs and placements in purchasing and supply/sales appear on major graduate jobsites, as well as on specialist websites. The latter include recruitment agencies which focus on a particular sector. See the ‘Useful websites’ section below for relevant links.

To find vacancies on Career Connect, use the Business Area category ‘Retail, sales and purchasing’.

Large firms attend recruitment fairs and employer events at the University, particularly in the autumn. Check Career Connect for details of these, and use these to meet employers and get advice on their opportunities.

Small and medium-sized organisations may not advertise jobs or placements widely, so if you want to work for them you will need to contact them directly to ask about jobs or work experience. It is useful to do this to increase your chances of finding suitable jobs, particularly if you are looking for work in specific locations. Social media is commonly used by businesses in this sector to advertise their opportunities, and joining relevant professional groups on media such as LinkedIn is a way of networking and getting advice as well as making yourself known to professionals and organisations.

Useful websites for further information
Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply
Case studies and jobs in buying.
Clearly sales
Sales jobs based in London and nationwide.
Case studies and job vacancies.
Institute of Customer Service
Provides information on events, qualifications and accreditation. It also includes a news blog and video case studies.
Purchasing Manager (Prospects)
Job profile including responsibilities, skills needed along with work experience.
Retail sector information (Prospects)
Retail sector information, including profiles of jobs in retail.
Sales and purchasing (Prospects)
Job profile which includes a description of responsibilities, working conditions and skills required for the role.
Simply sales
National vacancy site.
Supply chain
Vacancies in logistics , procurement and supply chain.
Supply management
Latest supply chain and procurement vacancies in buying, category management, planning and logistics.
See also

Related information in the following sectors:

Last updated: 01 Feb 2019